If there’s a mad scientist involved then usually what you’ll be looking at is either the latest episode of Scooby-Doo, or some shady futuristic sci-fi adventure. Fission Superstar X is in the latter of those categories and brings a wacky protagonist straight out of the same weird and wonderful reality you’d expect of a crazed cartoon episode.
From his humble abode, somewhere on Planet X, our mad doctor Leopold Merkin has spent the last 6 months making good on the most unexpected request. You see, Dr Merkin has created the ultimate nuclear bomb – the fission bomb. This bomb isn’t like any you’ve seen before however, as whilst it surely has the capability of being the destructive and explosive device it was intended to be, this fission bomb has spoken and is said to have told its greatest desire to our mad scientist. The bomb calls itself Celine and Celine wants what many hope for – to be a superstar. And our doctor is going to make sure that happens.
Of course, Fission Superstar X is more than just our wacky protagonist, and if you look into the core experience, what you would find is a roguelike space shooter full of challenge, randomly generated enemies and permadeath waiting around each corner. But then again, this is space, and no one said life in the galaxy was easy.
Throughout the game, your task is to guide Celine, our lovely nuclear bomb, all the way from Planet X and help her through the distant journey towards planet Earth in order to destroy it – along with every other planet along the way. With such a vast distance to travel, and such cruel intentions, you can’t expect a silent journey and there is certainly a fair bit of space combat to be had on the way.
In terms of story, whilst there is one there, and the intro starts it off nicely, there is never all too much focus on things afterwards. The gameplay proves to be the real focus here as players are put in control of our protagonist’s 1980’s styled spaceship before setting out on the side-scrolling adventure ahead.
Like any good roguelike adventure, should you die in Fission Superstar X, you’re dead for good; there’s no comeback, no respawn, and certainly no second chances. That means you’ll need to ensure each battle is managed effectively and to do that, you’ll need to have a crew that works well to man your ship’s defences. At the start players begin with just a single standard turret placed towards the top of the ship. Progress a little however and you’ll soon find access and options to buy further weaponry to fully stock your ship and ensure each side is protected also. Turrets however can only shoot in the limited direction they can physically see, meaning should you have a target outside the rough 45-degree firing range, you’ll find yourself in a world of trouble.
The ship will be able to be stocked up with more weapons than even Robocop, as you sit aboard with turrets on near every surface, and that certainly helps to ensure the gameplay feels remotely easier when being attacked from all angles. But of course, having extra weapons means extra crew are needed to man them.
First of all, you have to have your pilot sorted and as you start each run, you will gain a few points to improve on your starting crew. These points, also known as DNA Points, are used to increase the crew’s skill in Aim, Armour and Skill. From here, players are thrown into their new run and depending on how far you have progressed will depend on how fleshed out your crew are. Two crew members are in place to start with, but four become available later on, filling roles of Pilot, Science, Engineer and Medic. Each of these fill unique roles and hold a variety of stats, with Medic bringing healing, Engineer sorting repairs and so on.
The gameplay itself is something that I can’t be sure whether I get on with or not. The controls aren’t to blame for this, as they are simple enough with either the D-Pad or the Left Stick controlling ship movement, the Right Stick controlling aiming, RT bringing your weapon fire and LT home to the Shield. A cheeky click of the Right Stick will also lock on to any target in the vicinity.
The problems faced early on however are that with just two crew members to boot, players can only really shoot at an angled position with the first turrets sat on top and below your ship, meaning anything directly in front or behind you can attack without consequence. Sure, you can move your ship to a more favourable position, but until you find yourself rocking the extra crew members to ensure each turret is manned, you’ll always find yourself with a blind spot.
Another thing that really griped me about my time with the game is just how long it takes to make any real progression. Within each run players get a brief look at a progression bar that sits at the top of the screen, and on it are the various planets you can expect to come across; the ones that you’re supposed to be destroying. However for the majority of the time, what you’ll actually find yourself doing is utilising your crew to take out meaningless canon fodder for an unexpectedly long time, all before you even see a planet. Getting through the first few levels of this isn’t something that takes too long, but once you eventually get to four crew members in your ship, not only does the difficulty begin to increase from there on out, but often reaching a planet can feel incredibly time consuming. For a game that focuses its design around 2D backdrops of space and side-scrolling gameplay, this is something that can very quickly become tiresome. Even for the most patient of gamer.
During any given run, players do earn money, and with that money they can then upgrade and repair their ship and crew. Money is earned by destroying enemies and once you’ve got enough, you’ll be able to fit your ship with some better handling courtesy of an engine upgrade, take on a few extra hit points with an Armour upgrade, keep your energy points topped up through a Reactor upgrade, or ensure you have a Shield to absorb that incoming enemy fire. You can either hire new skilled crew members to man the ship – all of which is dealt with at one of the space stations or ship upgrade facilities between levels.
The problems however lie in the wait for progression and with a sudden spike in difficulty, one wrong move can see you on the end of a stray bullet that causes your demise. That demise is followed by a complete loss of all progression. This means you either need to upgrade everything as soon as possible or potentially risk having to start over each time, simply because you’ve been outdone by much more powerful enemies.
On a positive though and the ships and creatures that combine forces to attack you certainly come in a decent variety. Yes you’ll see the same ship designs from time to time, but there is always something new to look at within each level. Not to mention the boss fights which are equally impressive. It also help that you are give a choice when it comes to the path you wish to take, given the option to stop off at a space station, repair shop, or fall into more exciting hazards such as an Ion storm or Police Ship.
Sadly, there isn’t much more to Fission Superstar X on Xbox One. The combat is somewhat manageable, and whilst the crew and ship upgrades feel in-depth, getting far enough to use all of their qualities simply takes too long for anyone to not become bored with what is essentially a 2D scrolling shooter experience. Sure it may have the odd moment of surprise and bring something to get stuck into, but with too much of the same thing going on for long periods, this is only one for those who have plenty of time, patience and a fair amount of skill.